Only two games are left in the Top 16, but the Group D race for the Final Four became a whole lot tighter following Cibona's 82-75 overtime win against visiting Efes Pilsen in Zagreb on Wednesday. Slaven Rimac exploded for 32 points, including 5 in a row in the extra period, to send Cibona to its second consecutive victory, both at home. It was the first loss for Efes and the first overtime game in the Top 16. It also threw open Group D to the team that rises to the challenge of the final two games. Efes is now 3-1 and tied for first place with CSKA Moscow, a winner over Unicaja earlier Wednesday. Cibona is 2-2 and in third place. Each team has one home game left. Cibona once again proved Drazen Petrovic Arena to be one of the toughest places to win by jumping ahead of Efes early and holding on despite some late mistakes in regulation time. Rimac's shooting helped offset a 29-44 rebounding advantage for Efes. Rimac hit all 5 of his three-piont shots, 7 of 11 two-poiners and 3 of 3 free throws. Rimac was followed in the scoring column by big men Niksa Prkacin and Haris Mujezinovic with 16 points each, while newcomer Darren McLinton added 10. For Efes, Antonio Granger picked up 14 points, Marcus Brown and Kaspars Kambala 13 each, Jurica Golemac and Kaya Peker 10 each.
Cibona had a game plan, and it turned out to be perfect: Limit Brown and Kambala, the main guns for Efes all season long. Cibona did a great job of executing that plan in the first half. Brown, who torched Cibona with 24 points in Istanbul, scored only 2 in the first 20 minutes. Kambala could add only 4 points. Cibona was leading for the most of the game but never by more than 9 points. Cibona led 56-48 with 29 seconds left in the third quarter when Granger hit a basket and then, following a steal, Kerem Tunceri dropped a buzzer-beater to cut the lead to 56-53. Efes added the first 4 points of the final quarter to lead 56-57. But that was the last lead for the guests. Prkacin made 6 straight points to regain put Cibona back ahead, 62-58. Rimac soon made it 67-61, but Efes got close once again. Kambala rebounded a missed free throw by Golemmac to pull the visitors within 2 points. Cibona lost the ball and Prkacin fouled Kambala with 5 seconds to go. Since Kambala was unable to take the free throws, Brown as a substuitute made both, and Tomo Ruzic missed a layup that would have given Cibona the win.
Overtime was a one-way street. McLinton scored from downtown to start it, then Rimac and Mujezinovic added their shots. It was too much for Efes. To make the win sweeter, Rimac made the final two-point shot for 82-75. As it turned out, the layup Ruzic missed at the end of regulation time ended up benefitting Cibona. Due to the final seven-point margin, Cibona now owns a one-point direct tiebreak advantage over Efes, who won their first game in Istanbul by just 6 points. But for the fans in Zagreb, the important thing was that Cibona was still in the hunt for the Final Four. They were already looking forward to the final home game, when CSKA visits town.
Wednesday, March 26, 2003